This entry is part 3 in the series Maps Have Three Parts
Caves of Uthriam by Djekspek courtesy of the Cartographers Guild

Caves of Uthriam by Djekspek courtesy of the Cartographers Guild

When mapping, I tend to focus on the corridors, rooms, streets, caverns, and buildings. However, every map has more than just these areas; each has three zones in your design control. Next map you build, think of these zones and how you can change things up to be fun and interesting for your gaming.

This post focuses on zone 3, negative spaces.

“Negative space is the space around and between the subject of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, and not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape.” – Wikipedia


On homebrew maps, walls are typically thin pencil marks used to divide the map space up into rooms and other encounter areas. But those little lines are significant. They not only block line of sight, but they form important barriers PCs might interact with.

As you design your maps, think about the type and quality of the walls. PCs might try to listen through walls, break through them, or use spells to pass between them.

Fire and other hazards might be blocked or helped to spread because of the walls, as well. Stone creates great barriers, while rice paper allows eavesdropping and would not stop a lightning bolt.

Redrawing cues

A peeve is complicated maps that are difficult to redraw during games on battlemaps and player maps. You can make your maps easy to redraw with just a couple of quick GMing tricks:

  • Use black and white. Colour and textures make it harder to see what spaces you’re drawing. Photo-realistic maps look great, but they are lost on players unless you reveal them, and they make it harder for you to redraw. I’ll take a black and white map any day.
  • Use simple lines for the original map, make them complex as you draw. The players won’t see your copy of the map, just what you redraw for them during battles and while adventuring. So, make your maps dirt simple for easy understanding and redrawing, and make your embellishments and squiggly lines and whatnot as you redraw maps during games.
  • Negative space is sometimes easier to draw. Rather than drawing the shapes of rooms and corridors, it might be easier with some maps to draw the empty or null spaces. For example, counting squares takes awhile. Inner shapes are smaller, and counting those squares takes less time at the game table than counting the outside lines.
  • Pre-count lengths and note them. Some GMs and game books treat maps like art. That serves game masters poorly. Make maps useful game aids, not pieces of art. For example, count the squares or dimensions of various walls and areas before the games and put the numbers on the map. I should never have to count lengths when redrawing.

Negative spaces make great clues

Turn negative space into clues. For example, a map from one famous module forms a skull. If the PCs realize this early enough they can predict the rest of the dungeon layout and use this for better tactical planning.

Another favourite is to hide secret areas in such a way that they can be logically deduced by looking at the negative space on the map.

Negative spaces can also form letters, symbols and other shapes as fun clues for observant players.

What is the dungeon made of?

A quick look at the negative space on the map can help you catch logic errors and inconsistencies before they get you mid-game.

  • Note the base material of the area. Is it stone, wood, dirt?
  • Next, look at how thick the walls are, specifically the thickest and thinnest barriers. Are these thicknesses possible? Could crafty players circumvent a carefully planned setup because of a thickness error? For example, 3″ stone walls are no match for a maul.
  • Are the spaces between rooms and areas realistic? 5′ thick wood walls stretch the imagination. When a player asks you during the game you might get caught and say that the walls are wood but made of boards. Curious players will leap on this and break through the boards to see what’s in the enclosed space. Suddenly you have a bunch of passagesbetween rooms. Oi!
  • Give a bit of thought to the original construction, why the place was built, and for whom. Do the null spaces make sense?

* * *

This winds up our series on the three parts of maps we don’t often think about: the places you travel into and walkabout, the lines that separate these spaces, and the negative spaces. Hopefully, a quick look at each helps catch errors and inspires creative tweaks to make adventuring even more fun and mapping easier.

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